Earthquake, fire or flood: impact on school libraries

Following a disaster such as earthquake, fire or flood you will have to face the impact of damage to your school library and its contents.

To help you in this difficult task, we have put together a guide and a fact sheet, based on current conservation advice. This covers health and safety issues, likely hazards, and advice on how to deal with damaged items, including when these have become soot-damaged, wet and/or contaminated.


Safety first! Points to check before entering your school library
Useful items to bring with you
Hazards you might encounter on entering your library
Dealing with damage to different item types
Sewage contamination
Books out on loan
Further reading

Safety first! Points to check before entering your school library

Before entering the school library, your safety may well depend on taking the following precautions:

  • Check with your school principal that the building is physically safe to enter. Personal safety is paramount.
  • Find out whether the electricity and gas has been turned back on.
  • Wiring: underfloor or wall wiring may have broken or suffer water damage.
  • If your part of the city has broken sewage lines there may be a risk of sewage contamination if water has reached the library.
  • Find out whether the building materials in your school library (if it’s an older Nelson Plan structure, for instance) includes asbestos, and whether there’s any risk of asbestos being exposed following the earthquake.
  • Talk to your principal about insurance claims, and find out when a representative from the insurance company will be coming to the school. Clarify exactly what information you will have to provide, to substantiate an insurance claim against lost or damaged library materials.

Useful items to bring with you

  • In case the library has been flooded, bring gumboots
  • Rubber (latex) gloves - nitrile gloves are a synthetic latex rubber resistant to oils and acids
  • A mask of the grade for protection from mould spores or the fine particles in smoke
  • Crates / bin liners for items destined for disposal.
  • Plastic bags of different sizes for items you may need to freeze
  • Marker pens
  • Hand sanitiser

Hazards you might encounter on entering your library

  • Sharp objects on the floor – broken glass or china, shards of pottery
  • Fallen items of all kinds, from shelving and books to artworks and items in the library office, fish tanks and indoor plants
  • Computers and other ICT equipment broken or thrown about
  • Contamination coming from a variety of sources: broken sewage pipes, soot residues from a range of incinerated materials, water mixed with floor-level glue, dirt, silt, potting mix, and so on. In warm daytime temperatures this provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and mould.
  • If you have broken windows or damaged spouting, you may have water coming in down the inside walls when it next rains – so wall-shelving may still be at risk, even if it hasn’t been immediately affected by the earthquake.

Dealing with damage to different item types

Smoke and soot damage

  • Smoke leaves an acidic film and odour that causes discolouration, corrosion and damage
  • Many materials, from furnishing and construction materials to plastics used for many purposes, produce toxic off-gases and odours
  • Soot residues from plastics and synthetic textiles are typically a black residue that smudges easily
  • Burnt protein matter leaves a yellow-brown greasy residue
  • Residues from burnt wood and paper are typically grey and powdery
  • Ozone, which is often used by commercial vendors to get rid of the "smoke" smell, often damages organic materials and will accelerate the rate of deterioration of your collections. Ozone treatments should not be used on valuable or unique items.

Salvage following fire

  • Fire and water damage are often linked
  • Use HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaners (HEPA = High Efficiency Particulate Air)
  • Use only cool circulating air to reduce the risk of mould
  • Use dry cleaning or chemical sponges on collections
  • Keep books tightly closed to prevent soot entering the textblock
  • For more detailed information, including suppliers of specialist equipment, and sources of salvage and response training, see the downloadable fact sheet at the foot of this page: S-Factor: safety, smoke, smell, soot, salvage & supplies.

Water-damaged books

  • Find the best location for laying out wet books. If there’s any structural damage to the library roof, or if your carpet needs lifting for drying out, you may have to move your wet books to the school hall or the gym. Get advice from your principal, or whoever has taken charge of disaster recovery in your school.
  • Do not pack wet books tightly into crates. Conservation advice is to just pack them in a single layer, spine down. You may need a sack barrow, or some assistance, if the crates of wet books have to be moved to another location for drying out.
  • The New Zealand Insurance Council offers the following advice: Do not be too hasty to throw out water-damaged items. Just because something looks a sodden mess, it does not mean it cannot be recovered.
  • Books and other paper items should be frozen if you cannot take action immediately, as mould growth will start to appear on water soaked paper-based materials within 48-72 hours of suffering water damage.
  • If you do have to freeze wet materials, do not attempt to separate wet sheets (e.g. for books, maps or newspapers) or squeeze out the water. Do not turn the pages, as wet paper can tear very easily. Place in plastic bags, or wrap in plastic film, and label clearly with marker pen before freezing.
  • Make the bundles manageable size, ideally no thicker than 50mm. Outsized materials will be heavy and easily damaged. Support oversized items underneath with an auxiliary support.
  • Many moulds are allergenic and produce chemicals that can irritate the throat and lungs, or lead to illness. If you are handling materials that show evidence of mould, always wear a dust mask that is rated for use with mould, and latex gloves.
  • Dry your wet books slowly away from direct sunlight. Place on tables, and dry using continuous cool air-flow, from portable electric fans.
  • You should store wet books on end with their pages 'fanned open' to ensure the air current reaches all the wet pages. You may need to ‘fan’ the pages during the drying process to ensure the air reaches all pages.
  • Dehumidifiers can also help by removing moisture from the surrounding air. Use only dehumidifiers with an automatic shut-down and ensure they are emptied regularly. However, dehumidifiers are not recommended as the only method of drying. Fans blowing cool air are essential.
  • Materials will dry gradually in 2 to 7 days.
  • Do not dry out using electric space heaters, and do not place wet books in direct sunlight. Heat will cause further damage. Moving cool air is the key.
  • For further advice, consult a conservator or relevant heritage professional.

Wet photographs

  • The advice from conservators is to air-dry photographs immediately if possible.
  • If photographs are dirty, you can rinse gently in clean, cold water.
  • Air-dry them on clean blotting paper, or absorbent paper, with the picture side uppermost.
  • Do not touch the wet photograph itself, and do not ever allow photographs to dry in contact with anything else, as they will stick together permanently.
  • You can freeze wet photographs if you can’t air-dry them immediately. Place them in sealed plastic bags, then freeze. They can stay frozen indefinitely.
  • For further advice, consult a conservator or relevant heritage professional.
  • For more detailed information on how to salvage different types of images, see the September 2010 Collection Salvage Guidelines (PDF) from the National Preservation Office.

Wet maps

  • Handle wet maps with extreme care, and don’t try to separate wet sheets.
  • Do not attempt to sponge the surface of wet maps, or wipe off dirt.
  • Wet maps are very heavy, so don’t attempt to carry piles of oversize wet material without a support underneath them.
  • Freeze or air-dry them within 48 hours.
  • You can also drain excess water from map drawers and freeze the entire drawer and contents – if you have freezer space that can cope with this approach.
  • For further advice, consult a conservator or relevant heritage professional.

Other media, including CDs, DVDs, video and audiotapes

For information on what to do and what not to do, see the September 2010 Collection Salvage Guidelines (PDF) from the National Preservation Office at the National Library.

Sewage contamination

  • This presents serious health hazards, and even if air-dried, any items that have absorbed contaminated water will still present health risks.
  • You will need to put all affected items aside for disposal.
  • Before disposing of them, you will need to record key information for an insurance claim. This includes bibliographic details, and the barcode (if you have more than one copy). You will be able to download the information from your library management system.
  • Find out details of the process for lodging an insurance claim with your principal. You may, for instance, be able to remove the title pages and dispose of the rest of the sodden books, so that the claim can be completed in a few days’ time – while allowing you to remove the contaminated stock. Do check this out first though.

Books out on loan

  • Your school library may have hundreds of books currently out on loan – and as long as you have backed up your system, you will be able to confirm this figure, and let them know that some items may feature in insurance claims.
  • It is highly likely that some of these will be lost in students’ or staff members’ homes, as a result of earthquake damage.
  • It may take some time before you know, one way or the other. You will need to let the insurance company know that this is the case.

Further reading

  • The Ministry of Education’s Risk Management Scheme for Schools provides information for Boards of Trustees, with contact details for making insurance claims.
  • The National Preservation Office Te Tari Tohu Taonga (NPO) assists institutions and community groups throughout New Zealand. Based at the National Library of New Zealand, NPO staff offer advice, carry out assessments and meet with those responsible for caring for cultural heritage.
  • Email:
    Phone: (04) 474 3066
  • The Canterbury Disaster Salvage Team – representing the cultural heritage sector
  • Disaster Preparedness: the Baltimore Academic Libraries Consortium (BALC), 2006 update. This has an excellent section offering 5 different methods of drying water-damaged books. Look at Recovery Methods by Format in the list of Contents, and then the first item on the list, Books.
  • The US National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA) website, under Disaster Preparedness and Recovery
  • On the NAGARA site, you will find further advice under: Health and safety hazards arising from floods; and Salvage at a glance, part 1: Paper-based collections.
  • SKIP is a website funded by the Ministry of Social Development to that supports parents and whānau. There is information here that will help parents of children after an earthquake or other disaster.